Bringing biodiversity and conservation to the forefront in India

Brook's House Gecko (Hemidactylus brookii) at Amboli, district Sindhudurg, Maharashtra. Photo by Raju Kasambe/Wikimedia Commons.

Brook's House Gecko (Hemidactylus brookii) at Amboli, district Sindhudurg, Maharashtra. Photo by Raju Kasambe/Wikimedia Commons.

  • The National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-Being, set for debut, seeks to bring biodiversity and conservation to the forefront of Indian science, policy, and society’s attention.
  • From addressing biodiversity knowledge gaps and restoring biodiversity in a range of habitats to developing an early warning system for zoonoses, the Mission’s activities will not be restricted to protected areas or specific geographical regions.
  • Biodiversity science may turn out to be the most critical science in meeting Sustainable Development Goals and Targets, especially in the face of converging crises, such as climate change and COVID-19.

From addressing biodiversity knowledge gaps, restoring biodiversity in a range of habitats to developing an early warning system for zoonoses, the National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-Being, seeks to bring biodiversity and conservation to the “forefront” of Indian science, policy, and society’s attention.

Conservation biologists and ecologists associated with the Mission, under the Biodiversity Collaborative, posit that the mission will help meet conservation and sustainable development goals in several ways. They underscore that “activities under the mission will not be restricted to protected areas or some specific geographical regions.”

Home to nearly eight percent of global biodiversity on just 2.3 percent of global land area, India contains sections of four of the 36 global biodiversity hotspots. India’s unique and diverse ecosystems, distributed across many landscapes, rivers, and oceans are economically valuable too. The (asset) value of India’s forests adjusted for inflation was estimated to be at INR 128 trillion in 2018 (or 1.78 trillion USD using current exchange rates).

But “we do not know enough about biodiversity or wildlife anywhere in India,” emphasised the Biodiversity Collaborative members in an email to Mongabay-India. The Collaborative, a growing network of Indian conservation biologists and ecologists, was awarded a seed grant by the Principal Scientific Advisor (PSA) in 2019 to develop the program for the National Mission.

They are currently implementing a preparatory phase project for the Mission to be hosted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, with the National Biodiversity Authority as the nodal institution for managing it. On account of the COVID-19 pandemic, the launch of the Mission’s full-fledged implementation is likely to get delayed.

The Mission has two components. Its centerpiece, NISARG Bharat (National Initiative for Sustained Assessment of Resource Governance), will document and map India’s biodiversity, including its rich biocultural diversity, to enable conservation and sustainable use of biological resources. The second component will consist of six programs, each with field-based projects to realise the identified Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These will not be restricted to protected areas or some specific geographical regions, according to the Collaborative.

Noting that the mission has an expansive mandate, the Collaborative explained, “For example, a specific programme devoted to the enhancement of biodiversity in agro-ecosystems. Another important programme seeks to restore biodiversity in a range of habitats–grasslands, forests, wetlands, to name a few. Although the mission will have several core programmes, a large amount of resources will be dedicated to grants for research and action programmes relevant to biodiversity in any location.”

Commenting on the Mission’s framework, environmental geographer Ruth DeFries, who is not associated with the Collaborative, said the well-being of all people in all countries, and India in particular, is tied to biodiversity and wildlife surviving amid high human pressures is a “remarkable achievement.”

“The ability to grow food, filter clean water, and provide other resources depend on healthy, diverse ecosystems. I don’t know of other examples where countries have so explicitly recognised this connection, which is to India’s great credit,” DeFries told Mongabay-India.

“Inherently, many people in India value nature and diversity. Despite substantial challenges, the investments that society has made in conservation have paid off. Wildlife populations have fared better than in many other places. That does not mean that society should be complacent in the face of threats to biodiversity, but the ability of wildlife to survive despite high human pressures is a remarkable achievement,” said DeFries.

“India has a rich history of conservation movements, which speaks to the value people place on nature and biodiversity. On the other hand, conservation success can create difficulties for people who live near nature, such as crop-raiding and livestock predation by wildlife. For conservation to be successful, ways to mitigate these problems are critical,” she said.

Member of an indigenous community in Madhya Pradesh where sacred groves preserve biodiversity and local cultural beliefs. Photo by Sahana Ghosh.

Ecological restoration

While India faces several challenges in the sustainable use of biodiversity, its investments in transdisciplinary biodiversity science are not commensurate with the severity of these challenges. India faces several “pressing” policy and governance challenges, outlined members of the Biodiversity Collaborative in Opinion: Envisioning a biodiversity science for sustaining human well-being.

The effective and time-bound implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, and ensuring both legitimate forest tenurial rights and forest conservation will require changes in governance, now dominated by top-down approaches, they noted in the opinion piece. Additional challenges include the restoration of degraded lands and wetlands, ensuring ecological flow regimes in rivers, and assessment and monitoring of biodiversity in the face of rapid environmental change and resource exploitation, especially in a world impacted by COVID-19.

Additionally, the declaration by the United Nations of 2021–30 as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is drawing worldwide attention to the challenge of restoring natural ecosystems that have been degraded or converted (for agricultural use, for example).

The Collaborative stressed that India must capitalise on the national and global emphasis on ecological restoration in this coming decade. The National Mission seeks to enable restoration across the country by (a) developing national guidelines, (b) helping create a community of restoration practitioners across the country, and (c) providing pilot funding for restoration projects where outcomes will be monitored.

But how crucial is wildlife (its protection and the role it plays in ecosystems) in ecosystem restoration? Restored habitats provide essential landscape linkages for wildlife. “Traditionally, wildlife refers to all undomesticated animal species. So any species that is naturally a part of an ecosystem is wildlife. Wildlife is part of biodiversity, and biodiversity is critical to ecosystem function and ecosystem services provisioning. Conversion of wetlands and land, as well as habitat loss, results in the loss of wildlife and biodiversity,” the Collaborative said.

“Restoration aims to restore vegetation, habitat, and ecosystem function. As habitats recover, wildlife associated with these habitats will return, re-colonising these restored lands, which in due course will result in an increased population of wildlife and habitat connectivity. Increases in coverage of conservation and restoration targets across diverse biomes can be achieved in India through both land sharing and land sparing approaches that take into account opportunities for enhancing existing and new livelihood and employment opportunities linked to diverse ecosystem services.”

“So yes, restoration is great for wildlife. If we only consider large mammals as wildlife, then not all restoration may be suitable to provide breeding habitats for large mammals (if they are small patches, for example). But restored habitats are sure to promote connectivity, providing stepping stone habitats within corridors between protected areas,” the Collaborative explained.

Early warning system for zoonoses

The Biodiversity and Health programme of the Mission will look into two aspects of how biodiversity can improve healthcare – one will create an interactive citizen’s portal on India’s medicinal plants to provide reliable information for managing human, livestock, and crop health. The second aspect will investigate the relationships between biodiversity loss and patterns of infectious diseases that spread to humans from animals (such as SARS, Nipah, and swine flu).

“In India, we do not have much in the way of an early warning system, and developing that is part of the mandate of the OneHealth and zoonoses programme of the Mission. Our biosafety policies are largely not cognisant of these concerns,” the Collaborative stressed.

“For example, the 2020 MoEFCC advisory on the import of live exotic species does not refer to the possibility that some of these may harbour zoonotic diseases. Owing to high population density, its rich biodiversity, and high livestock population, India has been identified as a global hotspot for the emergence of infectious diseases (Allen et al., 2017),” it added.

While the areas of rich biodiversity may serve as a source of new pathogens, most pathogens are generalists, and they infect more than one host, giving rise to reservoir species whose ecology may be impacted due to biodiversity loss. It is critical to assess the influence of biodiversity loss on the risks posed by emerging disease to predict and prevent future disease outbreaks, they said.

A black-legged tick. Bites of infected ticks can transmit bacteria that cause Lyme disease to humans. Photo by Kaldari/Wikimedia Commons.

The biggest knowledge gap we face is that of wildlife health. “We need to revive OneHealth wildlife surveillance programmes that were initiated in the 1960s by epidemiologists such as Dr. P. K. Rajagopalan, and the legendary bird man Dr. Salim Ali, and use modern satellite tracking as well as genomic and viromic analyses to understand the movement of pathogens at global scales. This is especially important given that species distributions are predicted to alter due to climate change.”

Igniting public interest in biodiversity

The Collaborative also recognises the opportunity from the COVID-19 experience on people’s fascination with biodiversity. Early this year, the lockdown period birthed citizen science initiatives and even personal projects that are highlighting India’s urban biodiversity. The Aichi Biodiversity Target 1 (2010-2020) states that by 2020, at the latest, people are aware of the values of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably.

While most of the targets will not have been reached by the end of 2020, the Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) underscored the need to “ramp up collective ambition and willingness to do better in defining and implementing goals and targets for the next decade.”

Holding that biodiversity science “may turn out to be the most critical science” in meeting Sustainable Development Goals and Targets, the Collaborative underlined that biodiversity is “not a burden to be shouldered, but an essential benefit for our survival to be celebrated.”

“Such a deep connection and understanding of our human reliance on biodiversity can only come through targeted, local-level awareness and participation that incorporates the languages and cultures of our society. What is needed is a massive campaign for public engagement, with components that include mass communication and grassroots engagement. This will require broad involvement, from the largest organisations and government departments to small local groups and committed individuals. As the experience of the past few months has shown, people are inherently curious and fascinated by biodiversity, and it is that latent interest that needs to be sparked,” the Collaborative added.

Asked on rethinking the Wildlife Protection Act, (WLPA) V.B. Mathur, Chairperson, National Biodiversity Authority, noted that updated scientific data and information on wild species and their habitats need to be integrated into the Act’s legal provisions.

“Change is a natural process and therefore re-visiting the provisions of Wild Life Protection Act (WLPA), which was enacted  48 years ago in 1972 is a logical step. Further, in the last four decades, a lot of scientific data and information about the wild species and their habitats has become available, which needs to be integrated into the legal provisions of the WLPA in order to make them more effective in the conservation and management of wild species. This is particularly relevant in the context of the six Schedules of WLPA,” Mathur added.

A pangolin in Gir Forest, Gujarat. Photo by Sandip Kumar/Wikimedia Commons.


Banner image: Brook’s House Gecko (Hemidactylus brookii) at Amboli, district Sindhudurg, Maharashtra. Photo by Raju Kasambe/Wikimedia Commons.

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